Reconsidering the role of the designer

musings and reflections from my first ‘design’ hackathon

Originally published at https://jesstan.me on November 27, 2019.

A few weeks ago, I traveled to Princeton University with my good friend Linda Ting to design at Rehack, the first ever collegiate reverse hackathon. We were challenged to “think deeply about [our] interactions with technology and redesign consumer tech products in a more meaningful, socially responsible way.” You can check out our final project here.

I started my product design journey at Penn, where I’ve been doing all I can to learn on my own and from those around me. However, Rehack gave me the opportunity to escape the Penn bubble and interact with student designers from several other universities. Conversations about their projects and goals as designers prompted me to think more deeply about the role of designers play in consumer product experiences.

Who does design?

Traditional hackathons primarily attract computer science majors or people with some existing familiarity with programming. Rehack was a unique in that the final deliverables didn’t require any prior experience coding or prototyping. Tools were not technical barriers in communicating the designed solutions. Consequently, Rehack attracted students from diverse majors, most of which were not exclusively design-related-computer science, economics, marketing, cognitive science, anthropology, psychology, etc.

As someone with a somewhat unconventional major choice for the design industry (I’m studying Biology and Psychology), I found comfort in seeing how people of different backgrounds, majors, and universities found a place in design. In the words of Alex Schleifer (VP of Design at Airbnb), design is an “accidental profession.” Unlike medical and legal professions, there is no clear path that leads to design, which makes all the design role all the more ambiguous.

What do designers prioritize?

Seeing other projects at Rehack gave me a better sense of the diversity in approaches for redesign projects. These approaches reflect the different priorities and vision of the designers behind them. While some projects proposed unobtrusive integrations into existing interfaces, others proposed drastic changes that would completely disrupt the existing user flow. For example, one group proposed a Facebook feature to promote social activism that could be feasibly implemented without disrupting the existing interface. Another group completely redesigned the way tweets are sent on Twitter in efforts to reduce hate speech.

I’m reminded of Joel Califa’s essay on Subverted Design, in which he comments on how the priorities of designers have shifted as the role evolves. As the role of designers in tech rises in prominence, pragmatism and ability to achieve company goals are valued immensely. Thinking too idealistically or “perfecting” things for users is seen as naive and inexperienced. When designer priorities adopt this mindset, companies start catering to company needs instead of user needs.

For our Rehack project, we took a more pragmatic approach in redesigning Spotify, thinking about designing unintrusive features within the existing interface. However, we did factor user needs into every phase of our design process, from ideation to completion. From this experience, my perspective is that advocacy for the user is not necessarily limited by the pragmaticism or idealism of the designer. It’s the designer’s responsibility to stay focused on prioritizing the user.

What do designers deliver?

The scope of deliverables varied widely across projects. We had five hours put put together a three minute pitch on our redesign. Our final deliverable displayed our mockups within a slide deck, formatted like a case study. Other presentations featured a simple prototype, with a few linked screens. While our format allowed us to detail our process quite comprehensively, I saw the merits of using a simple prototype for short demonstrations.

In reality, design deliverables are dependent on a multitude of factors-client expectations, project timeline, developer handoff, etc. As a product designer for Penn Labs, I’m used to designing high-fidelity screens with detailed technical specs for hand-off to developers, while the business developers handle all the product marketing. Rehack was a challenge for me because product marketing and delivery was my responsibility. From this experience, I learned that there’s no single formula for packaging designs. Deliverables are most effective as communication devices when they’re tailored to the use case.

Moving forward

I’m very grateful to Rehack for the opportunity to meet other student designers and exercise my design skills. As I explore the rapidly evolving design industry, there’s no doubt that I’ll continue to question and challenge my perceptions of what designers do.

student @penn & designer @pennlabs | portfolio @ jesstan.me

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